My mom lives in San Diego. She had no idea that in the two weeks prior to my trip abroad, gang shootings had claimed three lives on the street where I lived in West Los Angeles. I would probably be safer anywhere but in my own L.A. neighborhood, where a gang war could erupt at any time.
I embarked on the Anti-Defamation League's Campus Editors Mission to Poland and Israel in August, very excited and willing to learn about anti-Semitism. Perhaps, the most powerful experience for me about trip was when we visited the death camps in Auschwitz and Birkenau. I'd watched many Holocaust movies and seen tons of photographs related to the Nazi atrocities, but to actually visit the site where millions of people were marched to their death was something entirely different.
It was just like comparing the effect of listening to a rap song about mothers crying over dead gang members that used to be their innocent children, to being 9 years old, hidden in a bathroom with your cousins, crying because a mob of angry men with guns are trying to bust in through your front door. The trip made the stories real.
I wished I could take a group of college newspaper editors on a trip to the kinds of places I grew up in.
I could just hear the guide:
"Welcome to Slauson Avenue in Los Angeles, otherwise known as the Slauson ghetto. This street is one of the strongholds of the Culver City Boyz, a gang of approximately 800 mostly Chicano males. The housing projects, which you can see to your left, were recently attacked by the Venice 13 gang, and two members of Culver City were shot and killed. A war has been declared between the two gangs."
The tourists then take pictures of the large graffiti letters, "CE X CE," on a wall, which marks the territory of the Culver City gang.
"Now, if you follow me and look to your right, you'll see a picture of a young man and boy on the sidewalk surrounded by flowers, candles and wooden crosses. The man, age 18, was a Culver City gang member who was shot down last week. The boy, age 9, was caught in the crossfire while riding his bike."
I'll have the man's younger sister talk to the group. She'll tell them about how she held him in her arms for an hour while he bled to death, until the ambulance finally came and hauled his lifeless body away. The police investigation: gang-related murder; case closed.
After the tours, I'll organize interactive plays about domestic abuse, about families in which the most responsible person is just an alcoholic, and, just for fun, I'll enroll them in a school where the main lesson is that they are nothing but potential criminals whose brightest hope of a future is not being welfare recipients.
If some of the participants get testy and refuse to accept this, their classmates will be ordered to verbally abuse and ridicule them. I'll limit the abuse to just that and inform them that in a real-life situation, the abuse could turn physical and even fatal.
My fantasy visit to experience the conditions of the ghettos of Los Angeles may never happen. But the trip I took to Eastern Europe and Israel was no fantasy. It gave us a taste of the Jewish experience of suffering in Poland and renewal in Israel.
After visiting the Yad Vashem museum of the Holocaust in Jerusalem, I was overcome with emotion. So many atrocities were committed against the Jewish people, and yet they have risen above it.
The tours they lead of their neighborhood tell a story of triumph over oppression, over poverty, over injustice. It is painful and confusing to compare them with my fantasy tour of my neighborhood.
How did the Jews overcome all their years of oppression? Was it their culture? Their religion?
I became desperate in Yad Vashem.
I wasn't looking at history in there; I was looking for answers. Argenis Villa is a student at Cal State Dominquez Hills, where he writes for the student newspaper. He recently returned from the Anti-Defamation League Campus Editors Mission to Poland and Israel.